The presence of plastic pipe is ubiquitous, but some might say its profile is low simply because plastic pipe is often out of sight, below ground or behind walls.

Yet plastic pipe connects Australia. It plays an essential and integral role in Australia’s built environment, the nation’s infrastructure, electricity transmission, agricultural irrigation, stock and domestic water supply and the mining and gas industries to name a few.

People who think plastic pipe is secondary to their lives might reflect on the fact that these products provide upwards of 85 per cent of the pipe infrastructure to major urban utilities for power and the reticulation of gas, water, and sewerage. The high proportion of plastic pipe and conduit in the delivery of these critical utilities reflects enormous confidence on the part of asset owners in the ability of these products to deliver long-term efficient performance.

But today, efficient performance is not enough. Given the widespread use of plastic pipes, it makes sense to ensure we better understand what we are dealing with.

Leading PIPA (Plastics Industry Pipe Association) member companies Iplex and Vinidex have recently published world-first product–specific Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for their entire range of plastic pipe products. What is an EPD and why did the companies make this decision?

To quote Edge Environment, the group that assisted both companies in the development of their respective suites of EPDs, “an Environmental Product Declaration, EPD®, is a registered document that provides relevant, verified and comparable information about the environmental impact of goods and services. An ISO 14025 compliant EPD is the gold standard to communicate your product or service’s environmental credentials to the market.”

PIPA’s executive general manager, Mark Heathcote offered a more layman-like explanation.

“Compare it to the product information on a can of soup. My kids completely get that,” he said.

Heathcote elaborated on the drivers leading to two major plastic pipe manufacturers separately taking the decision to publish EPDs for all of their pipe products, how it benefits the construction process and what lessons other product suppliers may learn from their experience.

“It needs to be understood that the move was consistent with the approach of both companies to continuous improvement on environmental performance over the last 10 years,” he said.

He explained this has been reflected in the close collaboration with the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) and government agencies on issues relating to PVC and the broader recycling initiatives of the plastic pipe industry.

GBCA developed the Best Environmental Practice (BEP) criteria for manufacturing PVC products back in 2010. The Australian Standards for PVC pipe have the BEP requirements embedded in them today to facilitate and openly encourage:

  • Best practice manufacturing
  • Fully independent third party certification compliance
  • Responsible sourcing of raw materials
  • Simpler procurement and easier identification of compliant products

“When initiatives such as these were undertaken, there was also recognition from our industry that our major commitment and motivation was in fact to continuous improvement,” Heathcote explained. “It is in that context that the development of product-specific EPDs should be seen. Our industry has in many respects been world leading and the Iplex and Vinidex product–specific EPDs were again indeed world firsts for plastic pipe manufacturers.”

EPDs are third-party verified documents based on ISO 14025 and EN 15804 Standards that communicate transparent and comparable information about the life cycle environmental impact of a product or service. Specifically, product declarations include information on the environmental impact of raw material acquisition, energy use and efficiency, composition of materials and chemical substances, emissions to air, soil and water and waste generation.

This information is prepared by specialist consultants and peer reviewed in a process managed by the Australasian EPD Programme and integrated into the wider International EPD System in order to achieve listing on the database.

EPDs are but one part of the environmental story, nevertheless, they are an important part.

Who benefits most from EPDs?

“Without a doubt it should be the Australian consumer and not because of the EPD itself, but what it represents,” Heathcote said. “It represents a commitment by an Australian manufacturer to be transparent with the Australian consumer about the environmental credentials of the plastic pipe products in question. Informed decisions can be made in the consumer’s interests by builders and developers because of the transparency that EPDs inherently require.”

PIPA believes EPDs are of great assistance to the industry’s customers – the builders and developers seeking to construct environmentally responsible buildings and infrastructure – because EPDs present key environmental product performance data in a uniform format and as part of a transparent review process.

“It is well known that some products use subtle advertising that can mislead consumers about the environmental credentials of their products, otherwise known as ‘green-washing,’” Heathcote said. “By contrast, the pipe products’ environmental credentials have been verified by a qualified independent third party. With a commitment to transparency, we aim to build and maintain trust in the safety, technical integrity and environmental sustainability of these products with the Australian consumer.”

Clearly the process of developing EPDs was valuable to the companies who developed them because of the rigour and assessment required. It had a positive effect on the cultures of both organisations. The research required in the preparation of the EPDs validated and justified some of the environmental initiatives that the businesses had committed to.

Access to Iplex and Vinidex pipe EPDs provides constructors with the evidence they require to claim credit points under the GBCA and the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia’s rating systems.

“This is a huge step for Australian manufacturing industry and we hope that this commitment is recognised in time by the developers who publicly state a commitment not only to improved environmental outcomes but specifically to EPDs and the transparency they represent,” Heathcote added.

So what role have EPDs played in raising the sustainability profile of Australian plastic pipe?

According to PIPA, the products already compete well on price and technical merit with demonstrated performance and well accepted durability. Industry leaders have recognised the merits of EPDs in establishing that better sustainability outcomes can be demonstrated by using these products.

PIPA and its member companies hope broader recognition of the merits of EPDs will come as more end users understand the information and increase their ability to take advantage of products with EPDs.

“We appreciate that recognition of the step the industry has taken with regard to transparency in the form of product-specific EPDS will take some time,” Heathcote said. “In our case, we think it is Australian manufacturing that is actually leading and many developers – and indeed governments – are yet to catch up, despite what is said at green building and infrastructure conferences.”

The pipe industry’s view is that there is a substantial disconnect between the sustainability objectives of some major developers and government and the reality of the actual procurement decisions which are invariably made by sub-contractors. While that is understandable to an extent, it is an issue in terms of encouraging  leaders in Australian manufacturing who actually walk the talk.

“We recognise that we have to change our communication strategies to meet this challenge and an increased presence in social media is also helping raise awareness,” Heathcote noted. “The sustainability credentials of materials such as plastic pipe would achieve greater profile and awareness if the sustainability credentials of projects were assessed with a ”ground-up approach” or otherwise expressed – by getting the basics right at the outset.”

What would be PIPA’s take home message regarding EPDs?

“Clearly our industry was one of the major beneficiaries of the development of EPDs. Through the development of EPDs, not only have we learnt a great deal about our own industry but others have as well. That was the whole point from the very beginning,” Heathcote said.

“In a very real way, we can as an industry approach the future confidently and with a sense of integrity about our products. Equally important, so can the Australian consumer. The current EPDs lay the basis for ‘continuous improvement’, something a respected leader in the green building movement reminded us about a decade ago – and we took to heart. It’s become one of our guiding principles ever since. We do not rest on our laurels.”